I woke up with a start last week thinking: good Asset Management is all about time.
We tend to think of managing physical assets being about space – things, in systems and networks, on sites. But this is what we inherit from Engineering. Engineers manage space, things in space. But we do not train them to consider the fourth dimension: what these things in space will look like, or deliver, in ten, or fifty, or a hundred years’ time.
I mean, it is hard enough to design a functioning system: to think beyond individual assets or components, to how they all work together. Our engineering training is not always that successful in getting us to think in systems, and how the whole adds up to something other than all the pieces: to deliver the services our organisations and our communities require. We still have some way to go to this ‘alignment’ from assets to output, let alone outcome. And system interactions can be difficult, especially if they cross discipline and silo boundaries.
But, unfortunately, we have to go even beyond this.
Lou Cripps of RTD Denver describes a good Asset Management practitioner as a time traveller. Managing for the future, based on where we are now, and informed by historical experiences and data. With physical systems, we always have to start where we are now, to be grounded in the physical realities, not floating free in blue skies. And we need the historical experience to be able to project forward, through modelling in its widest sense.
The first engineering manager I worked for described smart engineers as wanting to make leaps unfettered by whatever mess we were currently in. “With one bound, he was free!’ (This also reminds me of some strategic planners I have met…)
A good Asset Manager, I suspect, may be no less ambitious, but focused on something else: the challenge of working from where we are now, whatever that may be, to a sustainable infrastructure future. Not pinning too much hope on magic to come that might change the basic physical realities, or people, but thinking how the next step could lead to the step after that, how one consequence can lead to another, thinking about time and through time.
What kind of tools do we need to assist us in this?
What kind of education do we need for our Asset Managers of the future?
We build for a future some 70 or more years ahead, yet we plan (at most!) just ten years ahead. Bridging this dichotomy, requires a new skill – the practice of futures and foresight thinking, that is we need a way to ensure that our short term AM plans are taking us in the right long term direction, a direction that we need to be continually adapting as the world changes. Amongst the tools we could use are ‘Futures Wheels’ and ‘Scenario Planning’.
‘Futures Wheels’ involve the art of always asking ‘What’s next?’ In other words, looking to the consequences of our actions, and the consequences of those consequences (or ‘cumulative consequences’). A simple example would be – the railways are losing money so we put the fares up. Consequence: fewer people use the rail. The consequence of fewer people using rail is that more people use the roads and road congestion increases, carbon emissions increase, travel times increase. We create road congestion charges, limit parking in cities, look for alternative ways to mitigate carbon emissions, and learn to live with increased travel times – all of which have consequences of their own. OR, we look at rail as but part of a travel ‘system’ where the idea is not to make each element ‘self sufficient’ but to improve the overall system – which opens up the very opposite initial choice, that is the option to reduce rail fares and encourage more rail use. OR, to look at overall demand management. Systems thinking requires analysis of cumulative consequences.
Scenario Planning. This is a tool designed to think about how the future may evolve, to consider numerous alternatives, to think through how we would respond if that alternative should prove to be reality – and to develop indicators that let us know in advance where we are headed. This is a necessary, but time consuming task and involves many players in an organisation or community. Because of this scenario planning is often short circuited and consists only of the drawing up of alternatives and not the hard work of deciding how we would deal with each as reality and failing to develop the indicators.
Both of these tools require anticipation and analysis of cumulative consequences